Are you visiting Texas’s resort town of South Padre Island? This barrier island off the southern coast of Texas is one of the best family vacation destinations in the country. If you are a college kid, explore alternate things to do on your Spring Break including birding, sea turtle conservation, horse riding, amusement parks, and water activities in this detailed guide to the best things to do on South Padre Island.
When we decided to spend our Thanksgiving Break in South Padre Island, Texas it was one of the best decisions ever. The weather was mild, the sea was calm enough to go for a swim, and the timing was perfect to spot resident and migratory birds including pelicans, oystercatchers, warblers, and more – our kids were sure excited to see the birds and other wildlife!
Also, it was one of the less popular times to visit the island and we scored a deal on everything from hotel rooms, buffet dinners, to tours. We would definitely recommend South Padre Island as one of the most underrated destinations for families, couples, and friends.
Since then we have come to love SPI and plan on visiting it in different seasons. Here is our guide on the best things to do in South Padre island including attractions like Sea Turtle Inc, Dolphin cruises, SPI Birding and Nature Center, as well as attractions in Port Isabel including the Lighthouse and Pirate’s Landing. Follow our recommendations to plan the ultimate South Padre island getaway and have a great time on the beach in Texas.
Best Time to visit South Padre Island
The first thing in planning a vacation is understanding when to visit. If you are a family looking for beach fun or a couple looking for a short romantic getaway, then visit South Padre Island from September to February. The weather is perfect in these months: neither too hot nor too cold, plus the water is warm enough for a swim.
The windy air is great for kiteboarding and surfing. You will also spot lots of migratory birds as they make their way south to their winter habitats. In addition, as we already mentioned this is also the low occupancy season for hotels and you are sure to get some of the best deals, even on popular days like Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.
In March, the island is best left to spring breakers. The college-aged crowd descends on the island and all you will find everywhere are pool parties, beach competitions, blaring music, and live concerts.
If you are visiting the island for spring break with your friends, then we would suggest spending some time seeing the wildlife on the island including dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, alligators, and more. Take the opportunity to understand wildlife conservation and rehabilitation and take a vow to never throw trash on the beaches or into the sea. SPI is definitely the ultimate spring break destination and you are sure to have a great time.
In summer, SPI can become unbearably hot for some travelers. We visited the northern Padre Island National Seashore in July and while it was hot, we hardly left the water and had a great time in the Gulf. Expect the temperatures to stay in higher 90s for a majority of the summer season.
Hotel rooms are often available at low rates in the summer. Plus you can beat the heat at attractions like the Schlitterbahn Water Park. You definitely need to pack lots of sunscreen for a summer trip. In summer, the chances of a hurricane also increase so keep an eye out for tropical storms and rainfall.
What to pack for South Padre Island
We would recommend packing the usual beach vacation bag for a trip to South Padre Island. Here is a list of what goes into the beach bag for us and our 2 kids: enough sunscreen for all 4 of us for the entire trip – I recommend SPF 50 or above to be on the safer side.
I also bring rashguards for the kids during summer as the sun can be really intense. You will need to pack swimsuits, cover-ups, towels, sunglasses, and sunhat for everyone in the group. I always have a few trash bags in the bag because you never know when you will need them.
We also usually bring along beach chairs, coolers, and a blanket for the sand. Other essentials: beach toys! We bring our usual set with a shovel, bucket, and other toys as well as toy dump trucks and excavators to play in the sand. We also throw in frisbees or a beach ball along with a couple of books.
You will also need beach shoes as well as another pair of good hiking shoes to explore the island. Add a jacket or sweatshirt if you are visiting in the winter – it can get quite chilly after dusk.
Where to stay on South Padre Island
South Padre Island has a variety of accommodation options for travelers of all budgets. The island has hotels, motels, lodges, vacation rentals, romantic resorts, and even RV parks for Winter Texans. For families, we suggest staying in a beachside hotel with a pool and a good buffet breakfast.
Two hotels that are highly reviewed and satisfy all the above conditions are the Hilton Garden Inn and the La Copa Inn Beach Hotel. The Hilton Garden Inn is northside beachside, perfect for families and conveniently located opposite three major attractions on the island, including the SPI Birding and Nature Center.
The La Copa Inn Beach Hotel while more centrally located on the island has a great pool, boardwalk to the beach, and a great buffet breakfast. There are also many eateries located adjacent to the hotel – you needn’t leave the hotel for long if you don’t want to. They also have a good bar in the lobby. We stayed at the La Copa Inn Beach Hotel for our Thanksgiving trip and loved spending 4 days at the hotel.
Best Things to do in South Padre Island
Here is our list of the best things to do in South Padre Island. We have included nature activities, indoor as well as outdoor attractions, as well as must-eat foods while you are on the island.
South Padre Island Convention Center
South Padre Island Convention Center is a great place to visit while on the island. There is little to do inside the center but there are many popular attractions on the outside. As soon as you reach the parking lot, you will be greeted by one of the Whaling Walls.
The Whaling Walls are a beautiful series of murals located all over the world by marine life artist Robert Wyland. There are 100 such whaling walls in existence and they are created to increase awareness and conservation efforts for whales. The SPI whaling wall features the orcas or killer whales that live off the Gulf of Mexico. Along with orcas, you can also see bottlenose dolphins and other whales. The mural is beautiful and very photogenic.
Along with the mural, you will also spot giant beach chairs which are very popular Instagram spots. We recommend walking around the convention center and taking in views of Laguna Madre while you are at the center. The facility building is beautiful and you can spot many birds along the shore. Also do not forget to hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail which starts at the visitor center. (See below)
Laguna Madre Nature Trail
If you do not have much time to hike the island and do not want to pay entrance fees for attractions such as the SPI Birding and Nature Center, then just hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail.
This trail is free and offers an excellent introduction to South Padre Island’s rich wildlife. The trail is 1500 foot long boardwalk that crosses the marshes and takes you to the lagoon. Along the trail, you will spot many residents and migratory birds including pelicans, spoonbills, and more.
The trail has many bird blinds for bird spotting. We recommend getting binoculars and telephoto zoom lenses to take photos of the birds. We also saw butterflies, hummingbirds, and other songbirds while on the trail. Here’s a tip: go around sunset for beautiful views over the Bay and to see seabirds dive to catch fish.
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is located right next to the Convention Center and is one of the most popular attractions on the island. There are many things to do at the center including a butterfly garden, birding trails, a watchtower, and an alligator sanctuary and all of them are included in a low fee.
The center has informative talks about the alligators a few times during the day. For an additional price, you can choose to touch a baby alligator and a snake. We did this and our preschooler loved the unique opportunity. In case you are wondering whether the encounter is ethical, it totally is.
The baby alligator that you can touch is a rescued alligator and it is not intentionally taken from its mother. In fact, all the alligators that you will find in the sanctuary were rescued from roadsides, backyards, and homes. The center does a wonderful job of providing them with a safe environment.
While inside the center, you need to climb up to the 5 story watchtower to see panoramic views along the Laguna Madre. The views from up there are really spectacular. This is also one of the most romantic spots along the island.
While we visited, we saw a proposal taking place inside the tower and the staff had done a beautiful job with rose petals and other romantic decor. On your way out, stop into their gift shop. This is the best place on the island to buy nature-themed souvenirs.
Then, it is time to head outdoors. We recommend visiting the outdoor Monarch butterfly garden first where you can spot migrating Monarch butterflies during the season. After the butterfly garden, visit the alligator sanctuary where you can see several juvenile alligators sunning themselves. Also, take a look at Big Padre, the 50-year-old resident alligator.
The highlight of a visit to the SPI Birding and Nature Center is, however, the birding trails. On the trails, you will see several different types of birds. We saw pelicans, oystercatchers, spoonbills, thrushes, falcons, several types of ducks, warblers, and many other birds. The boardwalk trail has 5 bird blinds where you can sit and observe the birds.
We recommend keeping aside at least 2 to 3 hours to see the center and hike the trails.
Sea Turtle Inc
Sea Turtle Inc is located next to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center and is worth a visit. It serves as a hospital for the rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles before releasing them into the ocean. The center has many injured turtles and we got to see a turtle feeding, which was really cool for the kids.
The center is a great learning opportunity. My preschooler learned how the trash thrown in the ocean harms sea turtles and how big are different species of sea turtles. Since then he has been diligent about not letting trash go into the ocean and even helped pick a few pieces of trash he saw lying on the beach.
The center has another separate area where you can see resident turtles of different sizes and species. You can read about their stories and know more about the injuries because of which they can’t be released into the wild. Our kids really liked seeing the turtles up close and wanted to know all of their stories.
South Padre Island Visitor Center
The South Padre Island Visitor Center is a great place to learn more about the island attractions, eateries, and hotels, as well as the events taking place on the island. The staff are really friendly, know their island well, and can guide you properly. When we visited, the visitor center had great holiday decorations and had so many photo opportunities. This is also a good place to find free, clean restrooms on the island.
Outside the South Padre Island Visitor Center, you will find the largest outdoor permanent sandcastle on display. This is indeed an amazing art display. You will find detailed sculpting of many handcrafted features like a dragon, tower, castle, fishes, lighthouse, and more. You can also read more information about the artist.
Sea Life Nature Center Dolphin Research
The Sea Life Nature Center and Dolphin Research is a great educational opportunity. Kids of all ages can touch and feed the animals and learn more about them. Visitors can see rescued animals like Domino the sea turtle, tortoises, iguana, and fish along with crabs, octopuses, snails, etc.
The center promotes dolphin education and marine life conservation. They also offer Dolphin cruises that are eco-friendly. What that means is that the tours don’t disturb marine life by dragging a net through the water like other tours but take you out on the water to see the marine animals in their natural environment.
Update: The center is currently closed so you can’t visit the facility but you can still go on their dolphin tour which we highly recommend. (See below for details)
One of the best things to do in South Padre Island is to go on a dolphin cruise! We went on a dolphin cruise organized by the Sea Life Nature Center and it was one of the best experiences ever. This is an eco-tour meaning you won’t disturb the marine life by dragging a net through their habitat. Instead, you will get to make friends with the dolphins and see them play around you – along with the dolphin dog, Rozzi.
The person who makes this magic happen is Scarlett, the dolphin whisperer. She takes you down in her well-maintained pontoon. Scarlett’s dogs accompany her and any other dogs are welcome on board. Our kids loved being on the boat with the two dogs. The dogs could quickly sense when the dolphins were going to jump out of the water and helped us scout for them.
Seeing the dolphins is a memorable experience! We actually saw two different pods of resident dolphins! We saw the first one immediately after we went off but they were older dolphins so Scarlett took us out into the sea to find her favorite pod of young dolphins. The second pod was quite large, included a few babies, and was super playful. The dolphins kept jumping alongside us and we basically followed them around for about 2 hours – a wonderful experience.
We enjoyed seeing the dolphins. Our kids were amazed to see them leap and play in the water. The tour is a personal one as Scarlett takes only 4 to 6 people out on the water at one time. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and highly recommend it to anyone looking to get up close and personal with those beautiful creatures.
Queen Isabella Memorial Park
The first thing that you will see on exiting the Queen Isabella Causeway and entering South Padre Island is the Queen Isabella Memorial Park. It is actually located on the median at the foot of the bridge and is worth a visit. There are several monuments in the park, including the famous welcome/name sign.
The South Padre Island, Texas sign is a popular photo op on the island. The sign is framed by palm trees and lit up at night, making it extremely photogenic. Other attractions in the park include a bronze statue of Jose Nicolas Balli (Padre Balli). He was a Catholic priest and a settler and the island is named after him. You will also find a quaint memorial dedicated to those who died during the causeway collapse of 2001.
As we mentioned, South Padre Island is known as the sandcastle capital of the world. Apart from the world’s largest permanent outdoor sandcastle in front of the Visitor Center, you will find many other sandcastles on the island. You will find them in front of the hotel and restaurant entrances and outside souvenir shops. You will find locals building them on the beach. In fact, everywhere you go, you will see sandcastles! You can see them all together on the Sandcastle Trail – to know exact locations, inquire at the Visitor Center.
South Padre Island also has many sandcastle events and sandcastle competitions. Sandcastle Days are held in October and is one of the largest sandcastle events in the country. This free and fun family-oriented event has master sculptors trying their best sandcastles in front of an awed audience and thousands of fans.
During the winter holidays, you will find Sandcastle Village – an exhibition of holiday and Christmas themed sandcastles. You can also take sandcastle lessons on South Padre Island. This is a perfect activity for families with kids where everyone has fun together while learning to build and sculpt sandcastles.
No visit to South Padre Island is complete without beachcombing for treasures. We spent a couple of happy afternoons on the beach, bucket in hand, looking for treasures. Even our 1-year-old daughter enjoyed having her own bucket and collecting seashells. We were able to find large isolated areas on the beach where we could beach comb to our heart’s content. Our son found a really giant intact sea shell and even brought it home.
South Padre Island is a great place to go beachcombing as the powerful Gulf current brings a lot of things to the shore. You can find driftwood, seashells, seeds, dried seaweed, sea glass, and other unique items. Even sea fossils are said to wash up frequently at South Padre Island.
We also found a washed-up pufferfish among other things, so I’d recommend everyone to be careful and watch where you step on the beach. Here’s another tip: go just after high tide and you’ll find some of the best treasures from the sea.
The South Padre Island Farmers Market is the place to buy fresh produce and artisan goods including cheese, jams, jellies, fresh seafood, baked goods, and more. While the market is not huge, it has a lot of fresh produce from the neighboring Rio Grande Valley. The market also often has entertainment and eateries selling small bites.
Most vendors offer free samples, making shopping easier. We bought oranges, giant grapefruits, and watermelon to take home with us. The citrus fruits were very sweet and delicious. We also ate kettle corn – it was crunchy and good. The market is open on Sundays usually from 11 am to 1 pm and held in the Shores neighborhood.
Island Adventure Park
Located on the north end of South Padre Island, Adventure Park is the place to spend a day of fun and activities. The park offers many things including ziplines, horse riding, go-karting, mini-golf, and other activities.
You can actually go horseback riding on the beach and have a great time. The early morning rides are the best as you can enjoy your ride on a secluded beach before other people arrive. Alternatively, you can also opt for sunset or moonlight rides to spend a romantic time together on the island.
The Island Adventure Park also has a petting zoo where kids can pet goats and feed pigs, llama, and chickens. They can also enjoy pony rides at the park.
Bobz World is the ultimate fun destination when you want to spend time playing laser tag on the island. They have a large laser tag arena. Other activities at Bobz World include arcade games and bowling. While Bobz is not exactly on the island, it is located in nearby Los Fresnos and is an easy drive from the island. Most likely, you will see Bobz World on the way to the island – spot the huge king kong, shark, and dinosaur to know you have arrived! They also have an on-site gift shop and cafe that serves Blue Bell ice cream.
South Padre Island is best for souvenir shopping. The souvenir shops are located on all sides of the main street of Padre Blvd and they are the same places that rent ATVs and golf carts. Typical souvenirs to buy at South Padre Island include SPI t-shirts, magnets, ornaments, postcards, glass bottles filled with seashells, mugs, and home decor. The shops also sell a lot of essentials and you can buy everything on these island shops including swimsuits, coverups, sundresses, shorts, hats, sunscreen, beach toys, etc.
You will also notice many flea market type shacks around the island. The jewelry sold at these shacks is beautiful and they can custom make it as per size. My preschooler wanted a sea turtle necklace and they cut it to his length. Other great shops I noticed around the island include Paragraphs on Padre Blvd – a bookstore, BS kites which sells beautiful kites, and Seashell emporium for all kinds of seashell gifts.
South Padre Sand Dunes
Very few people know this but to the north of the island, you can find huge sand dunes spread over a large area. These dunes also often move on the road and as you start traveling north, you can see the road being taken over by the dunes. The dunes are beautiful and spread as far as the eye can see. Our kids had fun climbing over the dunes and jumping in the sand. Also, the views of the Gulf Coast and Laguna Madre from here are magnificent.
To reach the dunes, simply drive along the Padre Blvd past the convention center until you reach the very end of the road. Along the way, you will see several beach accesses which you can use to drive on the dunes. However, you will need a 4WD to drive over the dunes.
Cristo de Los Pescadores
Then it is time to visit the Southside of the island. We had to pay a small fee to access this area but it was worth the many attractions. The most famous of these is the statue of ‘Christ of the Fishermen’ or Cristo de Los Pescadores. This memorial is built to honor fishermen that were lost at sea. Along the base of the statue, you will discover sad but beautiful inscriptions written in memory of those who never returned. I loved walking around the base and reading them all. The views from the statue are also beautiful.
Isla Blanca Park
Isla Blanca Park is a large RV park with fishing piers. We took some time to stroll through the park and had fun watching people as they fished on the jetties. The statue of Cristo de Los Pescadores is also located inside this park. We also found many picnic tables along the water. The other end of this park has a boardwalk and a large beautiful beach. (see below)
South Padre Island Boardwalk / Playa Blanca
At the southernmost tip of the island, inside the Isla Blanca Park, you will find the beautiful Isla Blanca Beach. Also known as Playa Blanca, this beach is one of the least crowded ones on the island due to the entry fee. There is a large boardwalk along the beach as well as restrooms and other amenities. We visited this beach twice during our stay and had great fun playing in the sand and swimming in the water.
Schlitterbahn Water Park / Beach Park at Isla Blanca
If your kids need something exciting, then take them to Schlitterbahn Water Park. Located on the south side of the island, this waterpark is now known by the name Isla Blanca but locals still call it Schlitterbahn. The park has many rides and attractions including a variety of water slides, rides, float-in bars, water play areas, and beaches. This is a great way to spend an entire day on the island, especially while it’s sweating in the summer.
Chapel By The Sea
This beautiful quaint chapel on the south side is a must-see if you like beautiful buildings. While we haven’t been inside, we heard that the service is beautiful. I myself loved the architecture and the charming name.
Port Isabel Lighthouse
A must on a trip to South Padre Island is a visit to the nearby Port Isabel Lighthouse. You can actually climb to the top of the lighthouse for a basic entry fee and see beautiful 360 views from above. My husband stayed down with our baby daughter while our son and I climbed to the top. It was an amazing experience – climbing the spiral staircase and ladders was fun while the views were breathtaking.
You can read more about it in our post Best Things to do in Port Isabel Texas. After visiting the lighthouse, we also recommend a visit to Pirates Landing. This place is total fun for the kids and you can walk along the pier to see beautiful views of the island. You will find our favorite things to do at Pirate’s Landing in our Port Isabel Travel guide.
Water adventure activities
South Padre Island is one of the best places to enjoy a variety of watersports and adventure related activities. You can rent equipment for kitesurfing, paddleboarding, parasailing, and jet skiing. In addition, you can also join classes and learn these activities on the island. There are many places that specialize in teaching water sports on the island. While you can have water fun anywhere on the island, the best place to enjoy water sports is on the south side, where there are fewer people.
In addition to these watersports, visitors can also parasail or go skydiving on the island. The views from the sky at South Padre Island are beautiful since you can see both the Gulf Coast and the water stretched below you. Operators on the island also offer snorkeling and scuba diving excursions to nearby locales. The bayside has great clarity and most excursions will take you there.
In addition to these activities, you can also book your own charters. We recommend booking these for fishing charters, sunset cruises, and dolphin cruises. Sunset cruises are extremely romantic and depending on the company you can also go for a champagne cruise or plan a romantic anniversary or honeymoon celebration. This is also a great way to propose on the island.
All over the island, you will find delicious cuisine. During the 4 days that we were on the island, we ate every kind of food. We ate delicious al-pastor street tacos, hot dogs, savored fresh seafood, had a ceviche picnic on the beach, ate local ice-cream, and even had pizzas! We had cocktails and lemonades as well. South Padre Island is a great place for foodies and we recommend hitting whichever restaurant you fancy. They are all that good!
We had a blast during the 4 days that we spent on the island. We climbed lighthouses and trees, beachcombed for seashells, saw the dolphins jump around us, ate fresh seafood, and drank some pretty strong cocktails. We saw sandcastles and tried making our own. We saw beautiful sunsets and sunrises and had wonderful family time.
We hope you liked our list of best things to do on South Padre Island. What was your favorite activity when on the island? Let us know in the comments!